Biblical Archaeology Review 42:6, November/December 2016

Strata: How Many?

How many laws about prayer are there in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament)?

Answer: None

Of the many laws in the Hebrew Bible, there are none about prayer. No law stipulates when, what or how one should pray. Daniel Falk, Professor of Classics and Ancient Mediterranean Studies and the Chaiken Family Chair in Jewish Studies at Pennsylvania State University, clarifies that although laws about prayer do not appear in the Hebrew Bible’s more than 600 laws about religious practice, it should not be thought that people did not pray in ancient Israel.1 People certainly prayed, even though this practice was not mandated by their religious laws. The Hebrew Bible includes many stories of people praying, such as in 2 Kings 19, when King Hezekiah prays to be delivered from the Assyrian king Sennacherib.

Prayer laws do appear in the Mishnah, which was compiled in the early third century C.E. The Mishnah’s very first line talks about when one should pray: “From what time in the evening must one recite the Shema?”

Formal instruction about prayer also appears in the New Testament. For example, in Matthew 6:5–15, Jesus instructs his disciples how to pray.

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